The Band: The Yeah Yeah Yeahs
In The Beginning: Ten years ago yesterday, at the tail end of the early 00s garage rock revival and at the cusp of the blog era, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs released their debut Fever to Tell. The Strokes were the first product of the Internet Indie hype machine, but the Yeah Yeah Yeahs followed close behind them, galvanizing Lower Manhattan on the strength of their self-titled EP and now-legendary live performances. The early EPs and Fever to Tell crackle with animalistic energy, powered by Brian Chase’s pounding toms, Nick Zinner’s guitar, equally indebted to The Edge as arty New York predecessors like Tom Verlaine, and especially the incomparable Karen O. On Fever to Tell, Karen O shrieked, mewled and roared over Zinner and Chase’s primitivist stomp, simultaneously providing rawness (or as she would say on “Rich,” “RAW RAW RAW RAW”) and mainstream appeal. It wasn’t just Karen’s charisma that helped separate her band from her too-cool-for-school peers, but her ability to convey tenderness. Among ragers like “Pin,” “Tick,” and “Y Control,” it was ballad “Maps,” that caused the Indie world to lose its collective shit and garnered the group a performance on the MTV Movie Awards, and inspired the bridge to everybody’s favorite pop song of the last decade. In 2006, they released Show Your Bones to mixed reviews, a fairly standard sophomore slump.
Their Last Album: In 2009, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs released It’s Blitz, almost entirely abandoning the garage rock aesthetic of their previous albums. 2009 is known to some as the GAPDY year because of the critical hegemony of blog approved bands that topped year end lists and made decent impressions on the Billboard charts (Grizzly Bear, Animal Collective, Phoenix, Dirty Projectors and the YYYs). Three of the GAPDY bands released albums last year, and the other two released albums in the past month. Of all those albums, It’s Blitz holds up the best. The album opens with the indefatigable one-two punch of “Zero” and “Heads Will Roll,” a marked creative departure for the band, but a surprisingly natural one. The distorted guitar harmonics from “Rich” morph into buzzy synths on “Zero,” and “Heads Will Roll,” though a 4/4 dancefloor jam (one that’s gotten a decent amount of love from the EDM crowd), relies on many of the same elements (Brian Chase’s primitive pounding, Zinner’s ringing single note guitar style) that made Fever to Tell such a success. It’s Blitz never quite turns into the electropop album suggested by the first three tracks (though closer “Faces” subtly mirrors “Zero” in its opening electro/guitar riff). Relentlessly propulsive rockers “Dull Life” and “Shame and Fortune” nearly improve on early YYY tracks like “Bang!” or “Y Control.” Piano driven “Runaway” refines the aesthetic of the underrated IS IS EP. The highlights of It’s Blitz come, as usual, when the band shows its more vulnerable side on amazing ballads “Skeletons” and “Hysteric.” The lilting chorus melody on “Hysteric” is emotionally wrenching, even without touching lyric about the moment you realize you are in love (“you suddenly complete me”). It’s Blitz is the band’s most complete artistic effort and a damn tough act to follow.
The New Album: If the unqualified success of It’s Blitz posed the question “Where can they possibly go from here?”, Mosquito answers “Everywhere at once.” Mosquito is even more stylistically diverse than It’s Blitz, a hodgepodgeof the ideas and sounds explored on their previous three albums. It’s ambitious, ostentatious and frequently very silly. Mosquito is an album by a band that doesn’t give a fuck about what anybody thinks. The title practically dares critics to make suck-related puns. After 10 years of being the coolest band around, Mosquito finds them consciously rejecting anything that could even remotely be considered trendy. As Nigel Tufnel said, there’s a very fine line between stupid and clever.
Let’s start, as all reviews of this record must, with the hideous album art. At first glance, it seems like the YYYs are consciously trying to drive people away, but the ridiculous cover echoes the oddball sense of humor that spices up the record’s more (musically, at least) conventional moments. ”Area 52” finds Karen O throwing her considerable vocal power into lyrics that read on the page like subpar Farscape fan-fiction, relishing deliriously dumb lyrics like “I want to be an alien/take me please oh alien.” Karen O brings a similar joy to the title track, enunciating the shit out of the word “suck.” “Buried Alive” features a verse from Dr. Octagon, a character Kool Keith (who’s turning 50 this year) killed off in 1999, and buries his vocals under layers of reverb. All of these are somewhat questionable artistic choices, but the silliness of these songs serves an important function on the album. ”Mosquito,” “Area 52” and “Buried Alive” are the most straightforward rockers on the record, the type of track that have been the YYYs’ bread and butter for twelve years. Ratcheting up the camp factor makes the songs more interesting (if less listenable) and presumably makes them more fun for the band to play. They are a solid compromise for fans who want to relive some of the old magic, and the band, who are over it.
The weird tracks on the record are getting the most attention, but Mosquito also features some amazing fucking songs; high points in the YYYs’ formidable discography. ”Under the Earth,” linked above, is a monster, with Karen O, aided by a brilliant echo effect, riding the band’s slinkiest groove ever (there’s even a bass guitar!). Opener and lead single “Sacrilege” employs a gospel choir, an obvious irony, yes, but the moment halfway through the song when the choir enters is one of the most powerful musical moments of the year so far. ”Despair” is a natural progression from It’s Blitz, a more low-key and vulnerable version of “Zero.” “Slave” is most successful at recreating the barebones energy of Fever to Tell but evolved enough to not be derivative (I think many of the critics who don’t like the record want the rockers to sound more like “Slave,” less like the Rocky Horror-esque “Area 52”). ”Wedding Song,” the song Karen O sang to her husband at her wedding, is unsurprisingly beautiful. Karen O has proven on previous albums and on her side projects (most notably in “All is Love” from the Where The Wild Things Are soundtrack and the breathtakingly beautiful “Song For a Warrior” from Swans’ The Seer) that she has a voice that can penetrate even the most jaded soul. The band is wise to resist the temptation of recording 10 “Wedding Songs” or “Hysterics” per album, so the impact of Karen’s vulnerability does not diminish.
Though it lacks the overall consistency of It’s Blitz, the best songs on Mosquito are proof positive that the YYYs are one of the best and most versatile bands of the Indie era. Nearly all of the bands I’m covering for this feature are coming off their most acclaimed and popular albums. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, with Mosquito, admirably push forward, realizing that the best path to longevity is to not take themselves too seriously.
State of the Indie Union: Of all the blog era’s flagship bands, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs seem to be the most likely to remain relevant until the next decade. Karen O is a star, and Mosquito shows that they are still willing to experiment and that they’re not afraid to grow old. Look for them to have a career arc similar to the Flaming Lips (another band to be profiled in this series), experimental studio albums every 3-4 years and side projects and guest performances to keep Karen O in the spotlight during off-years.